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Millions Flock to "Passion" Film
Passion film close up photo of Jesus
A FILM REVIEW
by Marilyn H. Fedewa

Mel Gibson's powerfully profound film, "The Passion of the Christ," depicts the last 12 hours of Christ's life. From the arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane to the crucifixion, it is brutal, glorious, and thought-provoking. Many people exit the theaters silently respectful, changed somehow, shocked at the violent pain and suffering Christ endured out of love for all mankind.

For the past year, some early critics of the film have denounced it as anti-Semitic, claiming that once again all Jews will be blamed for Jesus' death. At the same time, defenders of the film praise its biblical accuracy as well as the powerful visibility it gives to the redemptive death of Christ. Emotions run high in all directions, both over the film's alleged prejudice against Jews, as well as the brutality Gibson uses to portray the tortures inflicted on Christ.

From occasional write-ups twelve months ago, media coverage escalated to daily frontpage headlines and full-color photos of some of the most dramatic images of the suffering Christ. The film is so controversial that Gibson had to invest $25 million of his own funds in order to complete it. By the time it opened on February 25 (Ash Wednesday), "The Passion of the Christ" may have become one of the most debated movies ever. By the end of the first weekend, it was well on its way to becoming one of the biggest box office hits of all time.

Research confirms Mel Gibson's conclusions about the extent of Christ's suffering before he died. Yet all too often Christians skip freely from Palm Sunday to Easter's Resurrection, happy for the results, but not quite willing to subject themselves to the cruelty and pain in between. Paintings and crucifixes display a few splashes of blood amidst placid poses. As far as I know, however, Christ's crucifixion, by definition, must have been excruciating, and this is what Mel Gibson is determined to show.

In that light, and in defense of an artist's right to tell his or her own truth, I cannot label the violence as gratuitous. It is certainly not for the faint of heart, however, and hopefully parents will view this R-rated (for violence) film for themselves first, in order to decide if it is appropriate for their children to watch.

Cinematically, many of the scenes are breathtaking and artful, and the violent punishment Jesus is subjected to is interrupted occasionally by flashbacks. There we experience gentler moments with Jesus as a playful young carpenter splashing his mother with water; a prophet washing the feet of his disciples; a savior protecting Mary Magdalene (played by Monica Belluci); a joyous leader on Palm Sunday; and a sacramental priest at the Last Supper.

Throughout the film, spoken entirely in Latin and Aramaic with English subtitles, the acting is superb, beginning with James Caviezel as Christ and Jewish actress Maia Morgenstern as Mary. The set design on location in Italy is entirely believable. The makeup is outstanding, often taking six hours before dawn to install on Caviezel, before he could begin acting for the day. Even the bone-chilling character of Satan, played by Rosalindo Celantano, adds to the impressive portrayal of the cosmic struggle between good and evil.

But is the film anti-Semitic? Does it blame all Jews in perpetuity for the death of Christ?

I noted at least seven times in which significant objections arose over what was happening to Jesus. These came from Jews, who essentially comprise everyone in the film, except the Romans. For example, when the conniving high priest Caiaphas presided over the "pre-trial" of Jesus, accusing him of blasphemy and sedition, a man in the crowd yelled loudly in objection. Soon a priest protested, too, saying "This is wrong - where are the other members of the Council?" Someone else cried out, "This is a beastly travesty!" All were roughed up and carried out by soldiers on Caiaphas' orders.

It was clear that Caiaphas had Jesus arrested in the middle of the night, and had him appear before a stacked tribunal and hand-picked witnesses, in order to avoid rebellion among Jesus' followers, also Jews.

Later at Jesus' trial with Pontius Pilate, even amidst the angry crowd which Caiaphas had assembled, some people cried out for it to stop. Along the way to Calvary, the soldiers continually pushed the crowd away from Jesus, beating the people back. Some of the people jeered at Jesus, yet others called out in concern. The English subtitled dialogue clearly shows the words "stop," and "leave him alone."

Two of Mel Gibson's early references for the "Passion" were German mystic Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774  1824), and Spanish mystic Maria de Jesus de Agreda (1602 - 1665). They too were accused of anti-Semitism by early critics of the film and, in some cases, of influencing Gibson in that direction. Some critics even argue that the "Passion" mimicked Emmerich's version of the events scene for scene.

While my expertise lies more with Marma de Agreda, having studied her for over six years, I recently reviewed Emmerich's writing in conjunction with the film. It is clear that they and Gibson are all citing the same biblical passages and history, some of it relying on popular tradition dating back to the 15th century. It was then that the "Stations of the Cross" were formalized. So there are bound to be similarities, but with a couple of exceptions at the most, I find no block-lifting of scenes by Gibson.

Yet many have commented that much of the film seems to be seen through Mary's eyes, sorrowfully but resolutely following the brutality inflicted on her son. Since Maria de Agreda's work is written entirely from Mary's perspective (see accompanying article), that indicates a possible influence. Nevertheless I believe Gibson followed his own vision and that - like the two mystics - his vision also carries with it compassion and salvation for all people, including Jews.

Gibson's theological consultant, William Fulco, S.J., also translator of the film's script into Latin and Aramaic, describes a great "concern for Jewish sensitivities" during the entire filmmaking process. It was continually under discussion, he said, along with Gibson's primary drive to convey the Christian message.

"I have never experienced a prejudice in Mel," said Fulco, "and I know him quite well. [He] simply had a profound experience of the Passion . . . and wants to preach Christ crucified."

!Bravo, Mr. Gibson, bravo!

Marilyn H. Fedewa is a Lansing-based author who has researched and written extensively about Maria de Agreda.

Copyright 2004 Marilyn H. Fedewa
Published in MiGente Magazine March 2004

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